Have you ever been to Europe in the summer time? It’s terrible! The whole continent crawls with fat American tourists. There are lines for everything you would want to see and the heat can be unbearable if you don’t have air conditioning. I’ve spent every summer of the last 15 years in Paris with my parents and I’ve never been thrilled about it.
My dad works for an American investment bank that has its European headquarters in Paris. He travels several times a year but works out of the Paris office during the summer. My mom is a freelance writer for magazines like Atlantic and The New Yorker. Every morning my dad hops on the metro to take him to the financial district and my mom kicks me out to explore the city. The only real rule I have to follow is my curfew, 11:00pm. I’d like to be back in Manhattan hanging out with my friends or blobbing out in front of the TV but mom thinks I need to broaden my horizons. I tried telling her I liked my horizons right where they were but she just kissed me on the cheek and sent me on my way.
I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I know lots of people would be thrilled at the prospect of spending the summer in Paris but I’m just not one of them. Despite my efforts over the years, I can’t speak a word of French and the French only have so much patience. I have to carry an English to French dictionary everywhere I go or point and gesture at the things I want. I can’t read minds either but I can tell by the way the waiters and shop keepers look at me they’re thinking, “Stupid American.” I simply don’t fit in.
The one bright spot about this summer is my new camera. Last fall I took a photography class at school and discovered I have a real eye for it. I followed up that class with one on Photoshop and now I can do pretty much any special effect I want in order to perfect my pictures. I turned 15 two weeks before we left for France and after months of hinting, my parents surprised me with a Nikon DSLR, a set of specialty lenses and all the equipment I would need to turn out professional photographs. My mom even got me one of those dorky vests you see photographers wearing. You know the type with all the pockets so they don’t have to keep going back to their bags to get equipment.
My Nikon has made this summer bearable. Paris may be crowded, stinking and sweaty but even I can’t deny how beautiful it is. When my mom kicks me out of our apartment, I don my vest, sling my camera bag over my shoulder and head out to photograph the world. I make my way through the throngs of tourists and search for something that tells a story. I can spend hours with a single subject. It’s amazing what light can do to change your perspective if you give it time.
Today I’m heading for the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the river Seine and links the Institut de France with the Palais du Louvre. The bridge commands impressive vistas of the Louvre’s neoclassic façade and the cathedral of Notre Dame. I’m not here to take architectural photos, I did those weeks ago. Today I’m out to capture the “Locks of Love.”
In recent years couples have begun coming to the bridge and attaching padlocks with their names written on them to the bridges railing. Once the locks are secure they take the keys and throw them into the Seine as a romantic gesture. Not everyone is happy about it but the government hasn’t come up with a policy to stop it. I thought the industrial appearance of the locks set against the neoclassic architecture of the surrounding area would make for an interesting contrast. I also thought if I waited long enough I might capture a couple in the act and maybe do a photo essay on the subject.
When I got to the bridge, it was hard for me to set up and get the photo I wanted of the locks. Considering the view you get of Notre Dame, and its proximity to the Louvre, I should have known there would be tourists everywhere. I remained undeterred. I took my time and got the shot I wanted then set about people watching. As the hours passed the throng of tourists died down as they headed to the cafes for lunch. I didn’t see any young lovers but I did see a subject that caught my eye.
He was sitting against the railing with his knees up to support a sketchpad. He had light blond hair and delicate features. When he looked up from his drawing I discovered he had the richest brown eyes I’d ever seen. He must have sensed me staring at him because he looked right at me and shot me a smile that rivaled the sunrise. I got embarrassed and quickly packed up my tripod. When I turned back, the boy had returned to his drawing. He was beautiful, I’d never seen anyone like him before and my gut instinct was to take his picture. I put the tripod back in my bag and hung the camera around my neck. I looked through the eye piece, set my shutter speed and aperture settings then fired away.
He was poetry in motion. Every move he made, every angle I shot him from, he was simply beautiful. I lost myself in my subject. Nothing else mattered, not the tourists, not the passing policemen, not even the young couple with their padlock, the subject I’d originally come to shoot. Nothing mattered but me, the boy and my Nikon. I was so caught up in shooting him that when he got up and started walking towards me, I kept shooting until he was standing right in front of me.
“Bon jour,” the boy smiled.
“Um hi,” I waved like a dork.
“Ah, American, oui?”
“Oui,” I nodded. Ok, I can speak one or two words in French but then any idiot can tell you the word for yes is oui.
“Je m’appelle Luc,” said the boy. I must have looked at him funny because he patted his chest, “Luc, oui?”
“Yeah, I got it. I’m Jason.”
“Right, Jason,” I nodded.
“Grand, Luc et Jason,” he smiled.
“Uh, yeah,” I nodded.”
“Vous avez pris ma photo?"
“Ma photo,” said Luc, pointing at the camera around my neck. “Vous avez pris ma photo, oui?”
“Oh, your picture, yes, I hope you don’t mind,” I blushed.
“Puis-je s'il vous plaît voir?”
“Um, I’m really sorry, I don’t speak French,” I blushed again.
“Ah, vous ne parlez Français, vous ne? Je vois la photo que vous avez pris?” this time he gestured at himself and the view screen.
“Oh, you want to see?” I replied, pointing at the view screen.
“Oui,” he nodded and flashed his brilliant smile.
I switched the camera back on and started to cycle through the photos I’d taken that morning. When I reached the series I’d shot of Luc, he moved next to me so he could look over my shoulder. They weren’t all great; I’d set the camera on continuous mode and simply shot everything. Luc laughed at some but when I got to the picture of him chewing on his pencil and looking out toward the cathedral, he smiled.
"Celui-ci est brillant, Jason, vous avez un bon oeil." I had no idea what he said but he was smiling so I thanked him. It seemed like he liked the picture and that felt like the proper response.
“Garder une seconde, vous devriez voir ceci,” said Luc.
It was obvious he wanted to show me something as he knelt down and dug into his backpack. I waited as he withdrew his sketchpad and flipped to the drawing he’d been working on.
“Jetez un oeil à ceci,” said Luc.
It was me! The entire time I’d been taking pictures of him, he’d been sketching a picture of me. He was a really good artist. He’d captured me shooting the Locks of Love as though he’d photographed me with his mind. I started laughing and he frowned, he must have thought I was being critical of his drawing.
“Vous ne l'aimez?”
“Great minds think alike,” I smiled, then gestured between the two of us, his sketchpad and my camera. When it dawned on him what I was talking about, he joined me in my laughter.
“Il y a un petit café là-bas, vous souhaitez obtenir un café?” he asked.
“I don’t understand.”
“Oh, coffee, sure,” I nodded. “I don’t know where the nearest café is though.”
Luc rolled his eyes then grabbed my hand and pulled me along with him. I followed without hesitation but he continued to hold my hand in his. I didn’t really think anything of it, he’s French and the French are more…free in that regard, especially compared to Americans. When we reached the little café, we sat on the patio and he ordered coffee for the two of us.
As we waited for our order, I dug into my bag and pulled out my English to French dictionary. Luc took it and giggled, then handed it back and pointed at my bag.
“Vous devriez mettre que de loin, il va vous confondre seulement.”
Before I could offer some sort of reply, the waiter brought us two tiny cups of espresso. I stuffed the dictionary back in my bag and Luc took a sip of his coffee then gestured for me to do the same. My parents love espresso but I’d never tried it and gulped mine down in one shot. It was so strong I nearly gagged.
“C'est votre première fois?” Luc giggled.
“Sorry, I think I’ll stick to hot coco,” I blushed.
For a while he just stared at me. His eyes were like shimmering brown pools and I found myself easily entranced by him. I had to shake my head to break the spell when I noticed he was talking to me.
“Ce que tu fais à Paris?”
I recognized the word “Paris,” and assumed he was asking why I was in town.
“I come here every year with my parents,” I explained.
“Pair ants is momma and papa?” Luc asked in badly broken English.
“Oui,” I nodded. “You really can’t understand a word I say huh?”
“Pardon. My L'anglais est très mauvais, mais je me sens confortable avec vous. Votre mauvais Français et vos photos sont charmantes,” Luc smiled.
Something about Luc’s inability to understand me made me feel like I could tell him anything. I’ve never dated a boy. I’ve never kissed a boy. My parents know I’m gay but they’re about the only ones who do. I wanted to tell friends at school but I’m really shy and I was afraid I’d be laughed at or worse. The last thing I wanted was to get beaten up over it.
“You’re the most beautiful boy I’ve ever seen,” I told him. “When I saw you at the bridge I never dreamed you’d actually come and talk to me. I knew I had to take your picture though.”
Luc continued to smile and I think he recognized the word picture because he posed for me. He put his elbows on the café table, held his face in his hands and stared at me with rapt attention.
“Hold still,” I told him as I took the lens cap off my Nikon. I snapped a couple of quick shots. “Beautiful.”
I think he recognized that word too because he blushed a soft, dusky shade of pink.
“Quand je vous ai vu, je savais que je devais dessiner vous. Il y a quelque chose d'exotique sur la visite de l'américain. J'aime beaucoup la façon dont vos cheveux s'abat sur votre front. C'est très mignon quand vous vous brossez il part avec les doigts. C'est dommage je n'ai pas mon appareil photo,” said Luc, gesturing between my face and the Nikon.
“Oh, you want to take my picture?” I asked and gestured at my face and the camera like he had.
He smiled and nodded so I slipped the camera from my neck and showed him how to look through the eyepiece.
“Ah, oui, oui,” said Luc, nodding his understanding.
“Ok, just press down on that button when you’re ready.”
I smiled on cue and heard the whirring of the camera. Luc held the button down for a moment and shot a series of pictures.
“J'ai comme celui-ci,” said Luc, when we viewed the playback. I’d turned my head slightly and the late afternoon sun glinted off my brown hair. It was a pretty decent shot.
“No bad,” I grinned, then my stomach rumbled reminding me that I’d skipped both breakfast and lunch that day in order to sit on the bridge and take pictures as the sun changed position in the sky thus changing the effects of the light.
“Avez-vous besoin de manger?”
“Sorry, my tummy’s grumbling a bit. I skipped lunch,” I blushed.
“Venez de suite, j'ai une idée,” said Luc. He stood up and held out his hand.
I walked with him, hand in hand, as he led me to an outdoor market. I continued to take pictures as he selected bread, cheese, fruit and a couple of bottles of water. He carried the bag of groceries in one hand and held mine with the other. We walked to a park with a great view of the Eiffel Tower and sat on the grass to enjoy our picnic. Luc lay on his side, propped up on his elbow, and I snapped pictures while he nibbled on his baguette and talked about who knows what.
It was the strangest feeling sitting there. The language barrier felt like this huge wall between us yet at the same time, I felt perfectly comfortable with him. I know it’s easy to think, “he’s pretty, you were just physically attracted to him,” but that wasn’t right either.
When we finished our meal, Luc took my hand again and we wondered the streets of Paris. He pointed at different things and talked as I took pictures. We were well off the beaten tourist path; he was showing me his Paris. I reveled in being with him. I held his hand tight and luxuriated in the softness of his skin.
As the sun set and night claimed the city, Luc led me back to the Pont des Arts. Every night during the summer the city of Paris puts on a fireworks display and lights up the Eiffel Tower in an explosion of color. I got some great shots of the fireworks bursting and silhouetting the tower but found more intimate subjects when I turned my lens on the spectators gathered on the bridge. Couples held each other close, put arms around shoulders and rested heads gently together.
They call Paris the City of Love and I could feel it there on the bridge. We were in the presence of genuine romance and I realized that’s what had been speaking to me all day. Love doesn’t care if you’re American or French, if you can speak English, French or even Esperanto. Love is the language of the soul and as Luc’s soul reached out for me, I cried out for it.
When I turned my attention back to him, he was standing close, almost nose to nose. He took my face in his hands and stared at me with those soulful brown eyes as if he were peering into the depths of my soul.
“J'espère que cela ne t'offense, mais j'ai voulu faire ce toute la journée,” said Luc, then he kissed me.
It was a soft kiss, just a bit of pressure on the lips but it was sweet like the nectar of the gods. It was the most incredible feeling I’d ever felt and when he stepped back from me with trepidation on his beautiful face, I giggled.
"Vous n'êtes pas fâché?"
“I don’t know what you said but I don’t even care,” I smiled and put my arms around his waist. It was my turn to kiss him.
I offered him my lips and when they met his, I felt a little bit of my soul escape with the breath I exhaled into him. I held him tight and he held me and for just a few moments the world was a perfect place. Somewhere in the distance a street performer was playing La Vie en Rose on his accordion. They do it for the tourists and I always thought it was silly. What kind of jerk wanders through life seeing the world through rose colored glasses?
I thought it was stupid because it was a question I couldn’t answer. I’d never known love before. Sure my parents loved me and I loved them but it wasn’t the same. With Luc in my arms and me in his I learned what love is and for the first time in my life I understood, truly understood romance.
When the kiss ended we both smiled and Luc pulled me against him to watch the remaining fireworks. When the show was over I glanced at my watch and realized I only had fifteen minutes before my curfew.
“Meet me here tomorrow morning?”
There was a look of confusion on Luc’s face as though he knew what I said was important and desperately wanted to understand.
“Wait, I don’t want to screw this up,” I smiled and pulled the English to French dictionary from my bag. “Recontrer ici demain matin?”
“Bien sûr. Je ne pense pas que je serai capable de respirer jusqu'à ce que je vous reverrai,” he smiled his understanding.
“I’ve gotta go,” I kissed him on the cheek and turned away. I walked a few feet and turned to look at him one last time. It felt like I had to do it if only to confirm it hadn’t all been some sort of wonderful dream. Luc was walking in the other direction but he must have been thinking the same thing because his head turned at the exact same time and we both blushed, and then waved. I walked home feeling lighter than air.
“Hold me close and hold me fast. This magic spell you cast. This is la vie en rose. When you kiss me, heaven sighs and though I close my eyes I see la vie en rose,” I sang to myself when I walked through the apartment door.
“Jason, honey is that you?” mom called from the living room.
“Yeah, hi mom,” I shouted back.
“How was your day honey?” she asked as she came out to greet me.
“Great, got some really good shots at the bridge,” I smiled and patted my camera bag.
“I saved you some dinner if you’re hungry.”
“That’s ok, I ate in the park.”
“Alright then, I’ll head to bed,” she kissed me on the cheek.
“Yeah, me too. I’ve got stuff to do in the morning. Oh, hey mom, before I forget, can you sign me up for French lessons?”
“Uh, sure, if you’d like,” said mom. I think she was a little taken aback by the request.
“Great, goodnight.” I kissed my mom again and wandered down the hall to my room. I couldn’t get that tune out of my head. “When you press me to your heart, I'm in a world apart. A world where roses bloom. And when you speak, angels sing from above. Everyday words seem to turn into love songs. Give your heart and soul to me and life will always be la vie en rose!”